Words spin into conversations. Conversations weave into relationships. Relationships embroider into friendships or even life partnerships. But we have to start – with a few words. Every book, every play, every story, has an opening line.
We have been thrown together with four other families – randomly – around a pool. Such is the fate of the holiday maker. We each venture out to the safety of our loungers on the side of the pool closest to our apartments. We smile at each other. We watch each other behind our sunglasses. Nobody can see who is looking at whom, so long as we don’t turn our heads too much. We enter the pool at different times. Later we may enter when someone else is swimming – being very careful to be sensitive to territory and personal space.
There is a large German family opposite. On the second day, after a few lengths, I take a breather at the far end of the pool nearest to their apartment. If the swimming pool was an ocean, and Germany had a coastline, I would be on their side of the international border. The matriarchal Frau launches into the pool from their territory.
It is late. There are only two of us in the pool, so ignoring her is not really an option, and I am happy to talk. I say “hello” and ask her how long they are staying. For a week. They are from Brehmen. She speaks perfect English in an American accent. Her name is Yvonne and she had lived for a while in Chicago. We ended up talking about various countries we had visited. I recommended Dubrovnik. She had never been to Croatia. I feel myself slightly showing off, competing, trying to impress a little – as well as being genuinely interested in places she had been to and in her background.
It is fascinating how one conversation can have three or four mixed motives, fear, pride, intrigue or concern dancing and interlacing around each other in some complex choreography. After 10 minutes, she ends our conversation quite abruptly with a “well it’s been nice speaking to you, David”. She doesn’t move – and I felt strangely obliged to swim to the other end and then get out of the pool. She is nicely formidable.
I like to speak to strangers and I have a natural reluctance to speak to strangers. Fear wrestles with fascination. After consideration, one prevails and sits on the other until it meekly submits. I weigh up the situation and either retreat or advance. The longer I weigh up, the more likely I am to retreat.
Retreat is always justified of course. They would not have been interesting – not my type. I would not have been interesting – not their type. They would have found it strange, intrusive or even weird had I been so forward. We are both clearly too busy for small, frivolous chat. These days it is far too easy to hide behind the sunglasses, the book the kindle or the phone.
There will be a grain of logic in our excuses. But the greatest part of our reason is more often our shyness and our fear. They will not like us, embarrass us, reject us, even despise us or completely misinterpret our intentions. Will he or she think I am coming onto her? Our reluctance to disturb, to impose, to interfere or to be seen as acting inappropriately may well be authentic and genuinely considerate. But it may well mask a deeper insecurity.
Sometimes we just need a reason or a pretext to say the initial word. After the break-in at our holiday apartment, our obligation to warn others conquered our inhibitions. The moral imperative to save our neighbours from opportunistic robbery compels us to jump over our self-erected barriers. Or, if we are less gracious to ourselves – if our neighbours were broken into because we didn’t warn them, we would feel terrible.
We had already exchanged pleasantries with an English family occupying the slot clockwise around the pool. So it was easy to casually say “just to let you know…” Frau Yvonne and her husband were in the pool also. I hesitated – they seemed engrossed in each other’s company and much less accessible. I didn’t want to disturb them. In fact, we only told them an hour later after we saw TJ, the site manager, relaying the information to them in rather excitable tones. We walked over to their apartment – clearly now on their territory – and filled in the blanks. Yvonne mentioned how important it was for us to tell people. I felt gently rebuked.
The third family we told – our adjacent neighbours also from England – were the most vulnerable to the same sort of break, as their garden was also secluded. They were nowhere to be seen. I was ready to wait for them to emerge. My daughter’s boyfriend had no such inhibitions. He and my wife actually knocked on their front door. Once contact had been established, I followed on behind and joined an existing “safe” conversation.
Always easier to do this. The connection has been established, the imaginary barrier broken, the path established by the pioneer. Easy enough to come up from behind rather than lead from the front and to blend into the conversation. Besides I am on holiday – I do enough of approaching strangers when I am at work!
Once the words have penetrated the alien territory and a conversation has established a fragile hold; it is important to follow up with more words and more bricks. The conversation becomes a mini-relationship, the mortar of trust cements and, over time, even a lasting friendship can be built.
The DVD we were watching when we were burgled, was Man on Wire. This is the man who walks between the Twin Towers on a tightrope for almost an hour. The initial connection between the towers is established by shooting an arrow with a thin string attached from one roof to another. This thin wire is used to pull across a thicker wire. Then the tightrope is pulled across. This is shored up by two cross wires and both sides are firmly anchored. Of all relationships, this really did have to be a trusting one. Strong enough and firm enough to walk along without it breaking or failing. Pierre Petit’s life depended on it. The initial arrow of our words can help establish a partnership which our emotional lives ultimately depend upon.
The tightrope stretches two ways. We would not be in their lives either. For every fear, anxiety, reticence, inhibition we feel, there is nearly always something similar on the other side.
Think of it – our most enduring and profound relationships and friendships – started with a few words. As did our casual and intermittent friendships. What if we hadn’t dared speak? What if we had given up after a few attempts? Retreated, rather than advanced? These people would not even be in our lives now.
And yet, do we remember that initial conversation which at the time may have filled us with anxiety and apprehension? I rather forced the issue with my wife – by spilling a cup of tea she had served me on a chair. Would I have dared speak to her otherwise? Now look at us – about to celebrate our pearl wedding anniversary!
I have never yet regretted speaking to a stranger. Around the pool we can speak more freely to each other, having broken the ice. Not that there was ever any real ice – real conditions are far too warm for that.
I doubt we will be exchanging telephone numbers with any of them, but casual human relationships do add spice and seasoning to the barbecue of life, and are certainly worth the risk.